The Curse of Education
by Harold E. Gorst
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In the whole history of education there is no greater absurdity than the notion that a boy can be taught to think by training his mind backwards and forwards in the conjugation of irregular verbs and the vagaries of Latin or Greek inflections. Exercises of this ingeniously ridiculous kind only serve to empty the brain of ideas, and to make room for the reception of facts crammed in on the wholesale system. It is an accepted fact, however, that the brain, in order to pursue its normal functions, must first be subjected to a course of training in abstract subjects as far removed as possible from all human interest; that common sense, in other words, is a product of Greek roots and algebraical formulae—not of the natural application of the thinking faculties to the ordinary circumstances of everyday life.

The hopeless imbecility of this tenet of faith is only equalled by the depth to which it has taken root in the popular mind. The wonderful thing is that the total failure of the plan has not long ago convinced everybody of its uselessness. But that is at once the mischief and the charm of the convention: no amount of practical demonstration will prejudice anybody against it.

In this way the great fallacy of education has been allowed to grow up and to spread its false and obnoxious principles like a network over the whole civilized world. With all the baneful effects produced by these fallacious dogmas staring them in the face, people do not seem to have been capable of tumbling to the fact that the origin of the social evils which surround them lies in the very calf of gold that they and their forefathers have set up and worshipped.

Even the reformers of education appear to have deceived themselves. Many of them—Arnold and Thring conspicuous amongst their number—have tried to abolish this abuse or to remedy that defect; but not one has gone to the root of the evil, and has boldly stated that the whole system of education is based upon totally erroneous principles—designed, not to encourage progress and generate ideas, but to stifle development, and to place an insurmountable obstacle in the path of the evolution of humanity.

The world has acquiesced in the deceit, and so the great fallacy has grown up unchecked, and, like a rolling stone, gathered moss from generation to generation, until its hideous proportions seem to have embraced the universe, and to have shut out every particle of light from the vision of unhappy, convention-haunted mankind.



There is no such thing in existence as a system of genuine education. A large number of institutions exist, as we have seen, for the purpose of manufacturing and cramming, after an approved plan, the youth of the upper and middle classes, and there is a well-organized system of sham education spread throughout the country under the title of 'public elementary schools.' That is the sum of modern educational effort.

The word 'education,' when used in the sense that is commonly applied to it, could not be satisfactorily and adequately defined in less than a post octavo pamphlet. It signifies an enormous number of things, from pot-hooks to trigonometry. It means history, geography, physics, chemistry, natural history, mineralogy, Latin, Greek, French, arithmetic, algebra, Euclid, and goodness knows how many more things, jammed in at so much a pound. It means taking a child, shaking everything out of its head, and then stuffing every nook and corner with facts it will never be able to remember, and with dates for which it cannot have any use. It means risking the mental shipwreck of the clever child, and making the stupid more dense. And it means popping the individual into a mould, and dishing him up as a dummy.

What it does not mean, is developing the faculties of each individual.

There is, in fact, a wide difference between what education is and what it should be. If every school and college throughout the country were closed to-morrow, it would probably effect some negative good within an appreciable measure of time, and it would certainly abolish much positive harm that is being unceasingly produced by the present methods of instruction. If no effort be made to develop the faculties of each individual, then it is better to leave them alone to develop on their own account. But nothing can be more pernicious than to take the youth of the nation wholesale, and to destroy most of the good that is latent in them, in order to manufacture them into something which Nature never intended them to be.

This is not education, but fabrication. It is destruction, not development. Real education would consist in assisting every individual to develop the faculties with which Nature had endowed him, and to train to their highest capacity any special talents that might reveal themselves during the process. Above all things, real education would encourage the utilization of the brain for purposes of thought and reflection, instead of trying to make it a warehouse for storing van-loads of useless knowledge.

It is absurd to assume that this simple educational aim is beyond the reach of humanity. That its introduction into the practical affairs of life would cause a stupendous revolution cannot be denied. But it does not follow, on that account, that it should be conveniently consigned, like many another pressing reform, to the pigeon-hole of the impossible.

The main thing that is required to carry out the true principle of education is more individual common sense and less State interference. The mischievous enactment that children should commence any process of instruction at the tender age of five should be at once struck off the statute-book. No doubt something would have to be done to remove young children of the poorest class, in large towns at least, from the influence of sordid homes for a certain period of the day. It does not follow, however, that they should be subjected to the routine of an elementary school and crammed with superficial and unsuitable knowledge.

Children want room to think; their minds have to grow up as well as their bodies. Mental nourishment is quite as necessary as physical nourishment; but it is nonsensical to apply them both in the same fashion. The mind has to be fed in a totally different manner to the body. The former is a delicate operation, that requires far more care and common sense than is necessary for the boiling of milk or the preparation of an infant food.

The child's mind is not a blank, upon which anything may be written at will; it is scored invisibly with heredity and individual tendencies. The function of the parent is to see that nothing is done to destroy this delicate fabric, and to watch carefully for revelations of natural bent and character, in order to encourage and develop them.

Anything in the shape of actual teaching or instruction ought to be rigorously avoided. Facts should be regarded as poisons, to be used sparingly and with discrimination. Every time that a fact is imparted an idea is driven out. That should be carefully borne in mind. The operation of the simplest fact upon the intelligence is highly complex. It is not only a thing to imprint upon the memory, but it is also a means of diverting thought into the channels of the commonplace. Every fact closes up an avenue of the imagination.

To take an illustration, let us suppose someone to impart to a little child the information that it is a physiological impossibility for angels to have wings as well as arms. This prosaic piece of intelligence would, in one moment, annihilate most of the romance of childhood. It would be a blow from which the imagination might never recover. The child would, by a rapid process of thought, lose all faith in fairyland, and in the thousand and one fancies of the youthful brain that are the mainspring of the development of the imagination.

Why is it that ninety-nine persons out of a hundred lose this faculty in the earliest period of their childhood? It is simply because their bringing-up has consisted in a persistent inoculation with the material facts of life, and a correspondingly persistent elimination of all imaginative ideas. 'Don't let the children believe such rubbish!' is a constant ejaculation of the mechanical-minded person who does not permit himself to suffer any illusions, and who has long since 'done with romance and all that kind of twaddle.'

At any cost the imagination of the child should be encouraged and developed. It is the richest vein in the whole mental machinery of man, the faculty within which genius most frequently lurks, and where it can be most easily and permanently destroyed. Grown-up people should remember that an indiscreet answer to a childish question, or a snub administered to an inquiring mind, is often sufficient to check thought. It should be mainly the care of the parent to encourage the imagination in young children, recollecting that up to a certain age its development depends upon all the absurdities and fantastic notions of childhood which the average adult is so fond of repressing.

By the exercise of prudence and some show of sympathy, it would then be possible to bring a child up to the age of seven or eight without damaging its mind or destroying its faculties. From that point onwards the child's education ought to depend upon the individual himself. There should be no such thing as instruction, in the sense which implies the cramming of the brain with information, or such mental gymnastics as conjugating irregular verbs and hunting for the least common multiple.

The position of teacher and pupil would have to be practically reversed. The pupil would lead, and the teacher follow. In fact, the latter should become an adviser rather than instructor, the child selecting those studies, or those arts or crafts, which are to be made the principal objective of its education, whilst to the mentor would fall the role of encouraging and assisting the course of study or practice at a morally safe distance.

Boys and girls would then not learn, but investigate. The process of learning should be got rid of altogether, being a clumsy, dronish way of acquiring knowledge, and one that tends to keep the brain in a perpetual state of dependence.

Ignorance, one ought to remember, is a valuable incentive to investigation. Young people should be left as much as possible to find things out for themselves. Education should resemble a person groping forward in the dark; and only so much light ought to be let in upon the process as seems desirable in each individual case. In that way, at least, the pupil would learn to think for himself; and even if little more were accomplished than this, it would be of ten thousand times greater value to the individual, and to the community at large, than the acquisition of a large stock of facts at the price of losing all power of reflection and initiative.

Let me give an illustration of what I will call the opposing methods of education.

We will suppose, for the sake of argument, that the only available book for the instruction of a class of boys was that excellent but abstruse work known as 'Bradshaw's Railway Guide.' The modern schoolmaster would draw up an exhaustive and complicated scheme. So much time would be devoted to parsing every sentence through the book. The figures would be added up, and subtracted, and divided. He would concoct neat little mathematical problems: If the 11.40 express from Paddington travelled to Swindon at fifty miles an hour and broke down half-way, at what o'clock would the 12.15 parliamentary train overtake it? and so forth. But—most valuable exercise of all—long tables of trains would be learnt off by heart, with the names of stopping places and the prices of the first-class tickets.

A genuine educationist would set to work in a much simpler fashion. He would tell the boys to look out a good train from Birmingham to Newcastle. Each boy would be free to tackle the problem in his own fashion, and the task—if successfully accomplished—would do much towards developing the thinking faculties.

In any system of real education it would be impossible for the schoolmaster to dictate the subjects to which the pupil should give his attention, and it would be equally impossible for the parent to say 'I intend my son to enter such-and-such a profession.' Nobody can settle beforehand what talents the child is to develop. That is a private matter in which no third person has any right to interfere between the child itself and Nature.

Modern education consists entirely of interference. There is, in the first place, the interference of the parent, who insists upon an artistic boy becoming a banker, puts an incipient tradesman into the army, or tries to make a scholar out of a mechanic. Then there comes the interference of the schoolmaster, who has his favourite recipe of Latin verses, quadratic equations, and what not, to stuff into every head he can get hold of for a few terms. Lastly appears the Government, which declares that nobody shall enter the army, or navy, or civil service, without devoting his best years to being crammed in such a scandalous fashion, that it is a toss-up whether he breaks down altogether under the ordeal, or simply forgets, a few months after the consummation of the process, all that has been pitchforked into his brain.

When a baby is brought into the world the parents spend the first year of its life in wondering and speculating about its future. Will it be a great author, or a Bishop, or a Lord Chancellor? If its mouth twitches when anyone slams a door, or it gurgles happily when a note is struck on the piano, they declare it has genius for music; and if it amuses itself later on by crude efforts to draw distorted figures with distorted faces and distorted arms and legs, they jump to the conclusion that they have produced an infant Correggio.

Why does all this anxiety about the child's individuality disappear the moment its intelligence begins to dawn? One must suppose, at any rate, that it does, because the parent immediately sets about getting all the originality knocked out of his offspring, and does not grudge the payment of heavy fees to secure this object.

The dreams about the Lord Chancellorship, or the gold medal at the musical academy, vanish as if by magic. There is no more talk about bishoprics or artistic fame. The parents settle down to the conventional task of having the child fitted for something it has no desire to be; and the notion that the particular faculties they observed—or thought they observed—during its early infancy should or could be developed never appears to enter their heads for a moment.

Some children develop later than others; but with proper care and encouragement it would be possible not to lead, but to follow, each child to its own bent. The child must show the way—that is the essence of real education, and it involves a complete upheaval of the principles upon which systems of instruction are at present founded.

There is only one way in which people are now able to obtain a genuine education, and it goes by the name—applied with more or less contempt—of self-culture. The process consists simply in the individual choosing his own subjects and studying them as best he can. No doubt the method could be immensely extended and improved, for the self-cultured man has no mentor to guide him when he is in perplexity, and would profit by experienced advice.

But even were this not the case, it would be far better to abolish schools and universities and to let everybody shift for himself, than to insist upon subjecting the youth of the nation to a system that ingeniously manufactures failures for every walk in life, and accomplishes practically nothing else.



It has been the chief aim in these pages, not to elaborate a scheme of education on new principles, but to point out the utter folly of persisting with a system that has worked a vast amount of evil, and cannot be proved to have achieved any real good.

Our great men have not been the product of a school curriculum, or of an academic training. In no single instance, as far as can be ascertained, has nobility of character, or the possession of genius, or soundness of judgment, or even beauty of diction in literature, been attributable to the grind in grammatical rules, the fact-cramming, and the mental gymnastics which go to make up what is called 'a liberal education.'

In science, where the highest intellectual qualities are brought into play, most of the great discoverers have owed their entire scientific knowledge to self-taught methods of investigation. And it is the same thing in every field of research where the thinking faculties must reach the supreme limit of development—namely, that nothing is traceable to academic learning, and that everything is owing to the mental initiative which is produced solely by self-inculcated habits of reflection.

To give education systems the credit, or even a share in the credit, of all the splendid achievements in politics, science, art, and literature is sheer intellectual laziness. It is the curse of the age that few people will trouble to question the existing order of things, and that nobody—except those who make the manufacture of opinions their profession—can be found to express an independent opinion on any subject under the sun.

That is one reason why newspapers exist in their present form. The leading article is primarily the invention of the stupid, conventional, well-educated man whose profound knowledge of dates and irregular verbs has, unfortunately, had the effect of preventing him from forming his own judgment on public affairs. The Press, which must have been originally established, like the famous Peking Gazette, for the dissemination of news, has long ago discovered that people prefer to obtain their opinions ready-made.

The wise argument we hear being urged in a railway-carriage or at a dinner-table is merely an intellectual reach-me-down purchased at a book-stall for the modest price of one penny. If there were only one newspaper, and consequently only one leading article on a particular topic, political discussion would die a natural death.

The political opinion to which the majestic alderman or the classically-trained savant gives such profound utterance is the opinion, not of himself, but of some poor devil who knows nothing of the blessings of a university education, but who writes in a garret, or in a dingy office off Fleet Street, to earn his bread and cheese.

Its value or political insight need not be disparaged on that account. I would trust it a thousand times rather than I would trust the opinion—if such a thing should have any existence—of the average educated man whose brains have been jellified at school or college. The point is not the value of the humble scribe's opinion, however, but the fact that a man, of what would be called inferior educational attainments, has to be engaged to do mental work that cannot be performed by the brains of people who have enjoyed all the advantages that a first-rate education is supposed to confer.

The vote of the working-man is scarcely more unintelligently applied at election times than the vote of the educated man. On the contrary, the former may be said to think independently, or at least to use an independent instinct, whilst the latter is contented to believe in the iniquity of one party or the virtue of another, according to the opinion of the man in the garret. The working man wants beer, and he knows it. The China question, the war in South Africa, the housing of the working classes, the great education controversy—everything is beer to him. It is the Government who cheapen beer, or who regulate the percentage of arsenic to be used in brewing, that command his support—not Ministers who promise to maintain British supremacy in the Far East, or who put forward an attractive programme of domestic legislation.

The natural consequence of this wholesale production of dummy members of society is that the strings of government are really pulled by the intelligent few. Whatever the external constitution of Great Britain may be, the real power does not lie with Parliament or with the Executive, but is invariably wielded by one or more men of commanding ability.

Nominally, the administration is in the hands of the social aristocracy, that is to say, of a few peer families and their innumerable relations. Whichever of the two great parties in the State may happen to be in power, the Government is invariably exploited by members of the peer class, who practically divide the spoils of office amongst themselves and their immediate entourage.

Although, however, the English nobility manage to usurp all the offices of State, and to secure all the plums for themselves, it is not they who really govern the country. No doubt the landed aristocracy are politically the most fit to govern. They have no commercial or industrial interests that may bring corrupt and undesirable influences into public life. But they are unfitted for the position they ought to occupy by a system of education that manufactures mediocrity, and stifles the very qualities of imaginativeness and initiative which are indispensable to sound statesmanship.

What is the inevitable result?

The self-made man, with all his splendid intellectual faculties developed, with his independence of judgment, and his acquired habit of thinking for himself instead of leaning on precedent and borrowed wisdom, rides the dummy Government class with whip and spur. He lays on the lash here and digs in the rowels there, goading on his steed in any direction that chances to suit his purpose. He naturally places personal ambition in front of national expediency, because his political career is necessarily a constant fight against odds. Either he must rise superior to the peer combination, as Disraeli succeeded in doing after a struggle unparalleled in the annals of political history, or he will be crushed by it.

But the necessities of his position render the self-made man a particularly undesirable element in the administration of public affairs. During the course of his successful upward struggle he has, in nine cases out of ten, entangled himself in commercial or industrial interests from which it is difficult or impossible for him to dissociate himself. By this means, and through the necessarily adventurous character of his political career, he can scarcely avoid becoming, however undeserved the imputation may be, an object of suspicion. And when once distrust of this kind has been allowed to permeate through our public life, the degeneration of parliamentary government must follow.

Disraeli spent the greater part of his political life in manoeuvring for the premiership. When his object had been successfully attained, all his great qualities were turned to the advantage of the State. But up to that point he was compelled, in order to survive in his colossal struggle against the aristocratic element in politics, to play for his own hand.

That must always be the case with the self-made man. His first objective must be his own self-preservation, and if he wishes to gain power he is bound to exploit the political situation, regardless of the best interests of the country, because every man's hand is against him until the summit of his ambition has been reached.

Schools and colleges in which the mind is crammed instead of being developed cannot produce statesmen. They can manufacture in unlimited quantities the type of well-intentioned, honourable mediocrity with which our public service is stocked. But as long as this process is continued, the real power in the administration of the affairs of the Empire will remain virtually in the hands of a few able individuals of the wrong calibre. There will be a dummy Prime Minister, and a dummy Cabinet; but the wires will be worked by the self-made man who must place himself first and his country second, with consequences usually disastrous to the national welfare.

There is no intended disparagement of the self-made man. He is, and always has been, the best intellectual product of the age. The greatest statesmen, philosophers, scientists, writers, and other men of genius have been self-made or self-cultured. But it does not follow because great statesmen have been self-made men, that it is for the good of the country that its rulers should be drawn from that class. As has already been pointed out, the self-made man usually creates far more mischief in the course of his upward political struggle, than is compensated for afterwards when he has secured his position and can turn his talents to the account of his country, instead of for the purpose of securing his own personal advancement.

There is, it must be remembered, a national emergency for which we have to prepare. Our extended Imperial obligations, and the sharp commercial competition which has caused some of the great Powers to sacrifice individuality wholesale in order to mobilize an army of traders, make it imperative that measures should be taken to preserve the Anglo-Saxon race.

The thing to avoid at this moment is imitation of tactics that will send every nation adopting them backward in evolution. To secure a temporary commercial triumph at the enormous sacrifice of the natural development of the individual, would be a fatal and short-sighted policy that could only end in national ruin. We have not yet reached the worst depths of the education fallacy, but we are complacently drifting in that direction.

State interference in educational matters may be an excellent thing when the whole energies of the central authorities happen to be exerted in mitigation of the evils of the national system. But it must be borne in mind that political parties and the heads of departments are constantly changing in this country. The reformer of to-day may to-morrow be superseded by a retrogressive-minded mediocrity; and there would be no guarantee that the beneficial influence of the one would not be annihilated afterwards by the pernicious intermeddling of the other.

Instead of casting about for means of securing a State monopoly of the ruinous type of education supplied by our schools and colleges, it would be more conducive to the salvation of the country if the whole energies of the nation were directed towards revolutionizing the system of instruction itself.

If schoolmasters can accomplish nothing better than the manufacture of set types of humanity, the progress of mankind would be promoted more rapidly without their assistance.

What is, after all, the main object of education?

It is to assist everybody to develop his faculties and talents, so that he may be fitted for the position in life which Nature intended him to occupy.

Nobody can assert for an instant that the conventional methods of instructing youth either achieve, or even appear to aim at achieving, this end. The school does not pretend to discover or to encourage individual talents. It offers to pound so much Latin grammar, mathematics, history, geography, etc., into each pupil, and to turn him out at the end of the process with exactly the same mental equipment as that acquired by the rest of his school-fellows.

The principal aim of this book has been to draw attention to the incongruities and evils brought about by this sham and worthless system of education. That the world contains many illustrious examples of culture and genius is no proof that the slightest benefit has been derived by anybody from parsing Ovid or cramming facts and dates. 'The best part of every man's education,' said Sir Walter Scott, 'is that which he gives to himself'; and it might be added, with literal truth, that it is the only part which is of the slightest service in developing the mind with which he has been naturally endowed.

All that I have presumed to advocate is that the door should be left open to intelligence.

The education systems of the present day are particularly felicitous in keeping it firmly closed. It is only by dodging the schoolmaster and the coach that youthful talent stands a chance of being brought to maturity. The greatest achievements are not the work of senior wranglers and Balliol scholars: they have been accomplished by class-room dunces, like Clive and Wellington; by school idlers, such as Napoleon, Disraeli, Swift, and Newton; or by self-taught men like Stephenson, John Hunter, Livingstone, and Herschel.

It cannot be doubted that the institution of a rational method of developing the mind of the individual would sweep away all these anomalies. There are thousands of men in responsible positions who would willingly exchange their entire stock of classical or mathematical knowledge for a modicum of common sense and judgment. If everybody were encouraged to think for himself, the Empire would have no lack of good servants to carry on the traditions of the past; and the dummy unit of administration would give place to a self-reliant man, capable of moving with the times, and of serving the public interest according to its wants, instead of clinging merely to routine and precedent.

Nearly all the misery suffered by humanity has been produced by artificial means. Providence did not intend this world to be a place of purgatory for the majority of mankind. We are what we have made ourselves, and not what evolution intended us to be. It is in our power to mitigate much of the evil we have ignorantly manufactured for our own discomfiture, if we only attack it at the roots. And the greatest curse humanity has laid upon itself is that arbitrary interference with the natural development of the mind which is misnamed 'education.'



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